The Shepherd Psalm in Time of War
If I were a Ukrainian Christian, hunkered in a basement in Mariupol, listening to the sound of tanks, missiles and mortars destroying the city I call home, what passages of scripture would grip my heart and form my prayers? If I knew that beloved members of my family were fighting in the resistance or had fled the country as refugees or (the worst fear of all!) were lying dead in the streets of the city, would my thoughts be dominated by questions, curses, and despair? Would there be even the smallest space for the living word of God to minister to my trembling soul?
For me, these questions are hypothetical. For my brothers and sisters in Ukraine, they are agonizingly real. I can imagine that Psalms of imprecation and lament are finding their way into the prayers of those who “are being killed all day long and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”[i]
A few examples come to mind:
“Out of the depths I cry to you,
O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”[ii]
“O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve!”[iii]
Or, the most breathtaking lament of all:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”[iv]
This week, the Lectionary brings us to Psalm 23. The eight verses of this psalm contain no lament, no imprecations, only trustful repose under the care and guidance of the Shepherd. How can this poem speak to us in time of war, when green pastures and still waters have been laid waste by an enemy without regard for human life? When the bad guys are winning and the Shepherd seems to have gone AWOL, what does Psalm 23 have to say to us?
At least part of the answer to these difficult questions comes in the recognition that Psalm 23 is not intended to apply only in times of peace. Though the psalm may have suffered from sentimentalization and overuse in funeral services, it is intended to be a song that inspires courage and confidence at all times, and especially when caught in a valley of death and when surrounded by enemies.
Those who closely study the linguistic and literary features of the Psalms tell us that Psalm 23 contains fifty-five Hebrew words and that word number 28, the one at the precise center of the poem, is “You,” or “Thou,” which is the first time God is addressed directly in the second person. The middle word of the psalm is part of the middle phrase: “You are with me.” Combine this with the fact that the word “Lord” is used only twice, once in the opening phrase and once in the closing phrase, and you recognize a poetic structure that reveals a spiritual reality. Our Lord, the Shepherd, is with us at the beginning and end of the journey and every point in between.
As Walter Brueggemann has written: "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy."[v]
The table prepared by the Lord in the presence of enemies (v. 5) is a powerful image, evocative of other biblical feasts, banquets and meal fellowship. For followers of Jesus, the most profound connection is with the Table of the Lord, where we gather to remember the suffering and torture of Christ at the hands of his enemies. Surrounded by forces intent on his destruction, Jesus prepared a meal and invited his disciples to enjoy it with him before he suffered.
As the citizens of Kyiv, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities have been driven underground into basements and bomb shelters, the pastors and priests of their churches have followed them into dark places of hiding. They carried with them the elements of the Eucharist and, in the presence of enemies, prepared the Table of the Lord, where all could feast on the Body and Blood of Christ.
Psalm 23 is a song for peace time and for war time. It is an inspired reminder to us that the goodness and mercy of our loving Shepherd follow us all the days of our lives, even into grim places of refuge from the dogs of war.